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Is Targeted or Universal Preschool More Popular? The Answer May Surprise You.

March 6, 2018
Christina Samuels
Education Week

A long-held belief among many early-childhood advocates is that taxpayers are more likely to support publicly-funded preschool programs if they’re universal—free for all children‐as opposed to targeted to children who come from low-income families. The rationale: Families across the income spectrum are more likely to support a program if they feel their children can also benefit.

But results from a nationally-representative survey found that feelings toward universal and targeted preschool may be much more nuanced.

Among the survey respondents, universal programs and targeted programs had close to the same level of support: 35 percent of respondents favored targeted preschool, 29 percent preferred universal programs, and 36 percent had no preference.

The respondents were also told through questioning that preschool might mean a higher tax bill for them. The respondents who favored targeted preschool maintained their support. But once reminded of pocketbook issues, respondents’ support for universal preschool fell off—possibly due to concerns of program size and cost.

The survey was conducted by Erica Greenberg, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank focusing on economic and social policy research. The study, “Public Preferences for Targeted and Universal Preschool,” was published in February in the journal AERA Open.

These findings should not be taken to mean that everyone supports preschool. An earlier analysis of this data found that self-identified Republicans were more likely to favor cuts to preschool spending than Democrats.

But in an interview, Greenberg said that policymakers should not think of targeted preschool as a nonstarter.

“I’ve heard folks from all different spheres just make this assumption that universal preschool is the strategic choice. It’s not necessarily true,” Greenberg said. “In certain communities, universal preschool might be the political win, and in some states, targeted preschool might be the political win.”